Joanna Nell – The Great Escape from Woodlands Nursing Home

Hachette, Australia, 2020

This is the third of Joanna Nell’s novels, each of which explores aspects of ageing and particularly ageing for women. Jo writes with gentle humour, with compassion and respect, but never shirks from addressing the tough matter of this subject.

Barbie taoks to Joanna Nell about The Great Escape from Woodlands Nursing Home

The Great Escape from Woodlands Nursing Home, as we might expect, deals with the many issues of institutional aged care. Here we see the loss of independence, the loss of choice, the loss of the dignity of work and the loss of home.

The three main characters in this story come to Woodlands involuntarily – Hattie has a fall in the garden and breaks her leg, thus cannot live at home alone during recovery; Walter after the death of his wife and a number of health issues is not coping at home alone; Murray is there for palliative care as cancer resolutely saps his strength and brings constant pain.

Each has a reason to want to escape the institution with its systems and rules designed for the running of a facility rather than the running of the lives of individuals.

The saving grace for everyone at Woodlands is Sister Bronwyn, who with her dog Queenie, does the night shift. Sister Bronwyn recognises what much recent research supports, that the aged residents do not need nightly sedating to keep them in their beds but rather some fun of their own making and a restoration of a sense of purpose in their lives, the capacity to use their often prodigious skills from a former life and generally to make their own choices.

She sets up The Night Owls where residents can mingle socially and/or go about their useful tasks, whether it be folding linen, polishing antiques or telling jokes – all with a nip or two of champagne.

An unfortunate accident sees Bronwyn fired from her job and the residents returned to a grim regime of confinement to their rooms at night. However, further Poirot-worthy investigations by our protagonists reveal skullduggery and criminal activity in the works, and further rebellion and subversion ensues.

Happy outcomes for our heroes and the residents in general can be anticipated – and more happily perhaps improvements in the policies of this particular nursing home.

One especially delightful aspect of this book is the treatment of the way relationships of all kinds develop, including inter-generational relationships. Walter’s sense of conspiratorial understanding with his grandson James is sheer pleasure to read.

In telling this sometimes rollicking, sometimes heart-breaking story, Jo Nell reminds us that these are things we will all face as we all age and we all die. She fearlessly takes on death, physical deterioration, over-medication and systemic and societal mis-thinking, and invites us all to consider what sort of ageing we would wish for ourselves and our loved ones.

This is a powerful work wrapped in a gentle cover of affection and fun that never once disrespects her subjects or her subject. This is a wise, kind and insightful writer tackling the stuff of High Commissions in an accessible and relatable manner.

It is with great anticipation that I await the next book, due out in 2021.

Thank you to Hachette for the review copy and for facilitating my interview with Jo – always such a pleasure to have these conversations.